Last year, former Wildcat and current NBA player Nick Johnson provided the Arizona men’s basketball team with sturdy, vocal leadership both on and off the court and largely facilitated the team’s chemistry.
At media day Friday, UA men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller said he thinks while this year’s team chemistry could evolve, he believes leadership will come from more than one person and that a committee of players will pitch in to spearhead the team’s leadership and chemistry in the post-Nick Johnson era.
Redshirt senior point guard T.J. McConnell, who transferred from Duquesne University in 2012 and played his first season for the Wildcats last year, has proven to be one of the best point guards in the game, garnering All-Conference honors in each of the three seasons he’s played college basketball.
“He was an excellent player before he showed up here,” Miller said. “If you look at him now, very few players have more experience than him; very few have been more productive than he’s been over his three-year career.”
In his first two seasons, McConnell was named the Atlantic-10 Freshman of the Year and ranked within the top five players in the nation in steals twice, finishing fourth during his freshman campaign and third as a sophomore.
Last year, after having to sit out his 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer restrictions, McConnell burst onto the scene and was instrumental in Arizona’s quest for a Final Four berth. He was subsequently named second team All-Conference and placed on the all-defensive team.
“I’ve seen [McConnell] play against the best teams and the best players in the country, and [I] truly believe in him,” Miller said. “I know the impact he has here for our team, and I don’t know if there is a more important player in our program than him.”
Last year, Brandon Ashley combined with Kaleb Tarczewski and former Wildcat and current Orlando Magic player Aaron Gordon to form one of the most lethal frontcourts in the country. Ashley was one of Arizona’s most productive and impactful players before he was sidelined with a season-ending injury.
“Although Nick was certainly a centerpiece in our leadership last year,” Ashley said, “I think we — Kaleb, T.J., Rondae and I — all have the experience and know-how to be leaders on this team.”
The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation and had amassed a perfect 21-0 record before Ashley broke his foot in February. Ashley said that having to sit out those 16 games made him realize that nothing in life is ever guaranteed. He said that realization has resulted in him returning to the court a hungrier player than ever.
This year, Tarczewski brings veteran experience to the low post along with an emerging defensive skill set, which could prove crucial for the Wildcats’ success.
He will be looked at to provide considerably more offensive production this year than he did last year. In addition to developing a better mid-range jumper and working on opening up more to the side, Tarczewski said he feels a lot more confident in his defense going into the fall.
“I think being able to get him the ball in and around the basket is not only good for him, but it’s great for Arizona,” Miller said.
Follow Evan Rosenfeld on Twitter.